Amid all the talk early this season about the aging of the Steelers, a new generation emerged on offense, no sign of that more evident than the team's most valuable player for 2011.
The players passed the torch to that new generation when they voted Antonio Brown as their MVP, a surprise only because there were a handful of strong older candidates and Brown, 23, did not even win a starting job until the 10th game of the season.
Once he did, the young receiver and return man had a mercurial rise. Over the past nine games, he has led them with 45 catches for 756 yards to register his first 1,000-yard season. On Saturday, he set the franchise record for all-purpose yards, and Tuesday he made his first Pro Bowl as a return man and was voted the AFC's fifth-best receiver.
Not bad for a 2010 sixth-round draft pick from Central Michigan University.
"I think it's awesome for him considering how many guys on this team could be that guy," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who would have to be one of them. "I think it speaks volumes for him and the respect we have for him in both those phases."
Brown came to training camp this summer as their top return man but no better than No. 4 on the wide receiver depth chart. In front of him: Starters Mike Wallace and Hines Ward and No. 3 Emmanuel Sanders. Then they signed veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery, possibly dropping Brown to No. 5.
But Sanders' foot surgery and Cotchery's newness allowed Brown to start as No. 3, and eventually he was promoted Nov. 13 as a starter over Ward, after he had topped 100 yards receiving in two of the three previous games.
Last season, he was part of the "Young Money" receiving trio that included Wallace and Sanders, and he blossomed this season.
Many cited an aging defense for the Steelers' slow start, but the young have taken over on offense. They include the trio of young receivers, Pro Bowler and second-year player center Maurkice Pouncey, team rookie of the year Marcus Gilbert at right tackle and a bevy of young backs with Rashard Mendenhall, 24, leading the pack.
Even Roethlisberger is only 29.
"Eventually, people have to play," said Wallace, a Pro Bowl starter in his third season. "Nobody on this team is getting a free check. You have to earn 'em and play for them."
His teammates and coaches said Brown has earned what he has achieved.
"It's a great testimony for hard work," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "I don't know anybody who worked harder. He came back in fabulous shape, had a great camp and it led him to a really good season for him. That's an awesome record he got, all-purpose yardage."
Still, Brown's selection ranked among the biggest surprises in the MVP voting since kicker Gary Anderson won the award in 1983. Wallace has more yards, more catches and more touchdowns than Brown. As a Pro Bowl quarterback, Roethlisberger has thrown for the second-most yards in team history and has them in the Super Bowl hunt again at 11-4 despite playing through a sprained foot, broken right thumb and now a high ankle sprain. Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel have had perhaps their best seasons, and Roethlisberger thought Pouncey was a strong candidate as well.
"To say MVP is saying a guy you can't win without," Roethlisberger said. "There are a couple guys on this team I feel are in that category and Antonio is as much there as anybody."
Brown said if you think this season was something, just wait.
"It's definitely only the beginning," Brown said. "I haven't started for a full season yet, I haven't done a lot of things. I just want the team to build on this and go on."
Pouncey wanted the Steelers to draft his twin brother in the first round in April, but when Miami grabbed Mike Pouncey early, the Steelers looked elsewhere in the offensive line at Florida. With Maurkice Pouncey's recommendation, they drafted another of his former teammates, tackle Marcus Gilbert, in the second round.
Gilbert earned their rookie of the year award, named in honor of Joe Greene, after starting every game but two at right tackle. Pouncey won the award last season.
Gilbert started out behind the eight-ball along with all rookies because of the lockout. Then, he could not practice in training camp for a few weeks because of a hamstring injury. But starting right tackle Willie Colon was knocked out for the season in the opener and Gilbert was pressed into action.
He missed only one game after that, benched Saturday against the St. Louis Rams because coach Mike Tomlin did not like how he prepared during the week. He's back as their starting right tackle Sunday against the Cleveland Brown.
"When my number was called early, I just felt I had to step up to the plate and perform at a high level," Gilbert said.
He did just that, and when another former Florida lineman, Max Starks, rejoined that at left tackle, the three Gators helped settle down an offensive line that had been in flux.
Like Marvel Smith before him as a second-round pick who started as a rookie at right tackle, Gilbert's future could land him at left tackle.
"I had conversations with them, flirted around with it," Gilbert said about the left tackle position. "But as of right now, we are just focused on this year and focusing on our road and journey throughout the playoffs.'
James Farrior turns 37 Thursday but would like to keep playing for "as long as they let me."
Farrior, in his 14th NFL season and ninth with the Steelers, earned his second Chief Award in the past three seasons. It is awarded by the local Pro Football Writers in honor of Steelers founder Art Rooney to the player who best exemplifies Rooney's spirit of cooperation with the media.
Farrior acknowledged that answering questions from the media is hard right after a tough loss.
"That is usually when it is most difficult, when you lose a game, and your emotions are running high, and you don't really know what to say to the media, and everybody is in your face asking you questions. But it is part of being a professional, part of being a Steeler, and that is something we have to deal with on occasion."
One of these days, Farrior will have to deal with retirement, but he recalled something defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told him a while ago.
"He said when you retire you retire for a long time, so it is definitely something you want to think about. Something that you definitely feel like if you are going to make that decision and if it is weighing on your mind, you have to make sure it is the right thing to do.
"Basically, what I took from that is, play as long as you can."
Roethlisberger went through another full practice and looks ready to go Sunday in Cleveland, but linebacker LaMarr Woodley again was limited and looks as if he will sit out his sixth game of the past eight. Troy Polamalu also did not practice because of a previously unmentioned knee injury, but he routinely has missed two practices in the past only to join his teammates on the field Friday and play Sunday.
Arians said that Roethlisberger looked "really well," in practice.
"He made it around good [Thursday], a little better than [Wednesday]. Being on grass helped, I think. It's good to be outside in the cold and get a little blood flowing. It was good, real good."
Arians said the plan Sunday for Roethlisberger will be to "go win the game."
• Game: Steleers vs. Browns.
• When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland.
• TV, Radio: KDKA, WDVE-FM (102.5).
Correction/Clarification: (Published December 31, 2011) Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and Max Starks played for the Florida Gators in college. They were incorrectly referred to as Seminoles in a story in Friday's editions.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published December 30, 2011 5:00 AM